I was talking with a customer at Marathon Sports the other day. He wanted to run faster and was looking for a pair of shoes to enable that. Not an unusual topic – who doesn’t want better race times! This conversation reminded me of three interrelated things that directly affect our speed: range of motion; turnover; and push-off.
First, range of motion or ROM. Jack Daniels observed that 1984 Olympic women distance runners had a heel-to-heel stride length of 58” and men 74”. This is probably the top end for most of us – but for purposes here let’s assume an average stride length of 59 inches, or roughly 1.5 meters. For a 5K race, that is about 3,300 strides. If a runner’s full ROM is reduced by just 1”, in essence that means running an extra 90 yards. At a 7:00 minute pace this would add 22 seconds. So instead of 21:46 5K, it would take 22:08. For a 10K, double that difference to 44 seconds. And for a half marathon, 92 seconds or 1.5 minutes. Clearly, a price is paid for a constrained ROM.
Second, turnover, or cadence as the cyclists call it, is another key part of the equation. One’s normal cadence is affected by height, weight, and stride length. Elite runners average about 90 heel-to-heel strides a minute. There is no physiological reason serious recreational runners should be that far behind – 85 strides is a good goal. Let’s say a runner’s cadence is instead 83. This results in a theoretical difference of 2.3%. Using our 5K scenario, this could mean another 31 seconds. Combined with the ROM factor that’s and extra 53 seconds. Extrapolating that for the half marathon – the gap grows to nearly four minutes – Yikes!
Third, push-off directly affects the time we spend in the air. Look at a video or still shots of top runners and note most spend very little time touching the ground. This is a result of push-off. Whether you move from your heel or your midfoot to launch your toe-off, that spring-like action serves to elevate and suspend you in air for some brief period of time. How brief varies significantly between runners. And targeted training can increase your lift.
So how do these three elements relate? Push-off directly affects both stride length and cadence. If you’re off the ground longer, your stride length will naturally be longer. Whereas if you have a strong push off, you may find this decreases your cadence. The reason it may not is a favorable rhythm allows you to get in a groove and stay there. Again, watch the top runners. They exhibit a rhythmic flow.
To keep things simple, let’s consider push-off neutral to cadence. The real question then is how can you simultaneously improve these three elements. The magic elixirs, if you will, are running drills and hill repeats. Six to eight running drills are optimal. These should combine skipping, jumping, fast stepping, and striding, all while moving quickly along with hip extensions and forward lunges done at a walking pace. The menu of drills selected should stimulate and stretch the full range of core and leg muscles and tendons. Six to 10 hill repeats of 50 to 200 yards run on a moderate hill at 90% effort every week or two will enhance your ROM, stride length, and cadence. What’s not to like about that!
But drills and hills are not quite enough. Exercises such as active-isolated rope stretches, developed by Jim and Phil Wharton, and heel dips are vital to both stretching and strengthening the calves, hamstrings, and Achilles. Weight training also helps. Quarter-squats and toe rises using the Smith machine or the leg press machine along with weighted lunges build essential muscles that enhance push off.
Bottom line, speed is a product of all the above. Seems like a lot, I know. There may be some shortcuts, but I haven’t found them.